The Rules of Reading

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Sometimes I have a love-hate relationship with reading. I love to read. I hate finishing a book and wishing it had been better. One-third of the way through reading a non-fiction book that has been well-reviewed, that has set the author up to write a series of similar books and has established her as a figurehead of the “fuck up the patriarchy” movement (I’m paraphrasing but that’s definitely the kind of language she would use), I was finding it a bit… tedious. So much so that the idea of picking it up again made me not want to read at all.

I looked longingly instead at my TBR pile. And then had guilt. The most ridiculous kind of guilt. As if I was considering cheating. On a book. Because of some arbitrary rules that I must have set for myself somewhere along the way without realising it.

So I’m creating a new set of reading rules (as much for myself as for anyone else).

You don’t have to buy a book.
If you want to own a book, then you have to buy it. But if you just want to read it, then you can borrow it from a library or someone you know who has a copy of it. But whatever you do, you must never steal a book. Never download a pirated copy of a book. It is stealing from the author. If you can’t afford to buy a copy, become a member of a library and borrow it. Some authors will even give you a free copy of their book if you ask nicely. It doesn’t cost anything except a little bit of your time.

You don’t have to read all genres.
Reading widely is a great way of expanding your knowledge of the world. But most of us read simply for pleasure and the expansion of our knowledge is just a by-product. If we are reading for pleasure, then it’s unlikely we are going to enjoy all genres of writing. If you don’t enjoy a particular genre, then you don’t have to read it. It’s completely counterintuitive. If you only enjoy one genre and you only want to read that one genre, then you are perfectly within your rights.

You don’t have to stick to one genre.
There is also nothing that says you can’t read more than one genre. Read them all if you like. Read any combination of genres that satisfies your reading appetite. Read the popular and the obscure, read the bestsellers and the flops, read the critically acclaimed and the universally panned, read fiction and non-fiction, read romance and horror, read thrillers and dramas, read sci-fi and historical, read steampunk and erotica, read fantasy and urban realism, read crime and westerns, and when you’re done reading all the genres that exist now, look for new ones because they are being invented every day.

You don’t have to read age-appropriate or demographic-appropriate books.
Most fiction seems to get divided up into categories based on which age group it is meant for: pre-school, new readers, middle grade, young adult, new adult and adult. And then there are the categories we’re told we should like based on who we are: women’s fiction for women, adventure for men, sci-fi for nerds and so on. But you can read books from any or all of these classifications. Most publishers stumble into books that go on to be bestsellers and that’s if they aren’t too busy falling all over themselves to reject them completely. The idea that they know who should be reading what, better than the readers themselves, is laughable.

You don’t have to read a book just because everybody else is.
FOMO (fear of missing out) is real, even when it comes to reading. But just because everybody else is reading a book because it was Oprah’s pick or it had a billion dollar marketing budget or it’s currently being made into a movie that may or may not suck doesn’t mean you should feel obligated. Getting sucked into reading a book that everybody else seems to be talking about often means it will fail to meet expectations because they’re almost never as good as the hype suggests. It’s perfectly reasonable to instead spend that time reading something you actually want to read rather than something you have just been tricked into reading.

You can read the last page of the book before reading the first.
Oh, how it pains me to write that! You will never catch me reading the last page of a book before reading all the other pages before it linearly. Mostly because the words have no real meaning to me if I haven’t read all the words before them. But if reading the last page of a book before diving in at the start is what floats your boat, then go for it. If it’s a crime, then it’s certainly a victimless one.

You don’t have to finish reading a book just because you started it.
On several occasions, I’ve read books – struggled through them actually – only to find that getting to the end made all of that struggle worth it. And with just as many (probably more), I’ve struggled through only to find that it wasn’t worth it at all. And then there are the books that I never finished. The one I always cite is Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. It just didn’t speak to me. But there have been a few others. The Haldeman Diaries, a memoir kept by HR Haldeman for the four years he was Richard Nixon’s Chief of Staff. It’s still in my library with a bookmark marking the place where I gave up over a decade ago. I might go back to it one day. But I might not. And that’s perfectly okay.

You don’t have to finish reading a book before starting to read another.
Ah, the dilemma that propelled me into writing these rules. I’m not very good at remembering what happened in a book if I don’t read it all in one go, so I try to stick to one book at a time. But whether it’s circumstances or the book itself, sometimes you feel like reading but don’t feel like reading that particular book. So it’s completely acceptable to read something else instead. You might go back to the other book. You might not. It’s entirely up to you.

You don’t have to like a book just because everybody else does.
I won’t name the two books that I dislike the most but one of them is considered a classic (my review: “this is the story of – to be frank – nothing very interesting and nothing much happening… the kind of bad novel a teenage boy might write before compiling a manifesto and then going on a killing spree”) and the other was made into a TV show (my review: “the only redeeming thing about this book is that it serves as an important lesson for everyone out there writing: if something as bad as this book can be published, then there’s still hope for the rest of us”). Different books speak to different people for different reasons and just as often they don’t speak to us at all. There’s no right and there’s no wrong when it comes to opinions, just lots and lots of them.

You don’t have to like everything one author writes.
Some writers write to the same formula in book after book. If you like the formula, then you’ll probably consider that a good thing. But it’s possible that you might get tired of the formula after a while. Similarly, some writers bore themselves sticking to the same writing formula, so decide to try something different. They might like the results. You might not. It is not compulsory to like everything that comes from one writer. And if the day comes that it is compulsory, then they’re no longer an author, they’re a cult leader.

You don’t have to review a book once you’ve finished reading it (but the author would probably appreciate it if you do).
If it isn’t clear by now, let me spell it out for you one last time: when it comes to reading, you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to. And that includes posting reviews. Yes, writers like reviews (particularly positive reviews) and if you can manage it, they’ll be eternally grateful. But if you can’t, then don’t worry. You don’t owe them anything. In fact, if you’ve read their book, then you’ve already done more for them than most people have.

*****

So that’s it. And the rules of reading all really come down to one thing: do whatever the hell you want. As long as you keep reading. After all, as Mark Twain so eloquently put it, those who don’t read have no advantage over those who can’t read.

The Continuing Controversy of Same-Sex Relationships in Fiction

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I have a theory that there are two types of writers: those who court controversy and those who avoid it. Controversy can mean many things these days but I was a little surprised to realise that same-sex relationships in fiction are still classified this way. And it has forced me to rethink the number of categories writers can be separated into and add a third: those who are controversial without realising it.

When KK Ness released her debut novel, Messenger, Book 1 in The Shifter War series, I was one of the first in line to read it. I’d followed with anticipation her writing journey through her blog ever since she did me the favour of reading a draft of one of my yet-to-be-published novels and offering some very useful advice. It was even more appreciated since we’d never met before and still haven’t to this day.

You can read my 4-star review of Messenger here. For the purposes of this discussion, this extract was my comment on the way the book had been categorised on Amazon:

“I was a little concerned when I was buying it that its main classifications seemed to be ‘gay fiction’, ‘gay & lesbian fiction’ and ‘lesbian, gay, bisexual & transgender fiction’ when the blurb clearly described a story that easily falls into the fantasy genre. Maybe my concern was because so much fiction classified in that way turns out to be erotic fiction. But it’s only because the main character and his love interest are both male. In fact, it was so subtle that I wondered if the ‘gay fiction’ classification might put off some conservative readers when it really shouldn’t. More a marketing consideration than anything to do with the story itself.” Continue reading

Things I’ve Learned about Writing from Writing Book Reviews – Part 2

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On Wednesday I posted Part 1 of the things I’ve learned about writing from writing book reviews, which included:
*There are three universal things that make a great book (plot, characters and the writing itself)
*Sometimes being great at one of those things is enough (if you do it so well that a reader is mesmerised)
*Sometimes it’s the little things that will stay with the reader (those moments that make us sigh or gasp or cry and make us want everybody else to have the same reaction)
*Don’t use writers’ tricks (because readers might not know that they’re writers’ tricks but they know they don’t like them)

Here’s a few more to round out the list. Continue reading

Things I’ve Learned about Writing from Writing Book Reviews – Part 1

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I’ve always been a big fan of the notion that writers must read (see my previous post on The Importance of Writers Who Read OR Why There Are Book Reviews on this Blog) and I’ve also discussed the concept of writers writing book reviews (see my previous post on The Review from the Top: Should Published Writers Write Book Reviews?). I read a lot and I’ve been writing book reviews for four years now. The more of them I wrote, the more I realised that I was continuing to learn about writing and having things that I’d already learned reinforced with practical examples.

So here, using excerpts from some of my book reviews, are a few things I’ve learned from writing them. Continue reading

Book Review: Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Høeg

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This is another book that I’ve already seen the movie of before reading it, before I even knew it was an adaptation, before I even knew there was a book. The more I read, the more I worried I was going to be left unsatisfied by it because it was exactly like the movie. The adaptation had been very faithful to the text. Usually that’s a good thing. But because I was reading the book after having seen the movie, I was looking for the differences, the details that can’t be replicated or demonstrated on film. I wanted a different experience, not the same one I had while watching the movie.

I got that and so much more. It’s not a perfect novel (it could be called slow) but it is so close that I can’t give it anything other than 5 stars, which anyone who reads my reviews and ratings will know is not something I do often. I’m a hard marker but this is a great book. This is a book that should be and will be read for decades to come. This is a book that should also be used as a teaching tool for all others wanting to write a book. Continue reading